Can Organic Clothing Manufactured in China Really be Trusted?

One of the questions we get A LOT is about organic clothing manufacturing in China.  There is a belief that garment manufacturing in China automatically means low wages and lots of pollution.  Many of our customers avoid anything made in China at all.  However, some sustainably-minded companies are still manufacturing organic clothing lines in China and it’s time to take a closer look at why they are.  For one thing, garment industry wages in China are increasing rapidly.  “Cheaper” clothing lines are actually leaving China for Africa and East Asia, where wages remain ridiculously low.  Additionally, organic clothing manufacturers are working with third party certifiers such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, OEKO-TEX, and Fair Trade International to ensure their Chinese-made goods are meeting environmental, safety and ethical employment standards.  Many of our USA made goods actually carry fewer certifications.

We caught up with Jane Nemis, owner of Echo Verde clothing for an interview on why they still manufacture in China.

Jane Nemis of Echo Verde visits a Chinese organic garment factory.

Faerie’s Dance: What influenced your company to manufacture in China?

Jane Nemis:  I had been working in China when it was the only producer of eco/organic fabrics (18 years ago) and formed relationships with factories that I still have to this day.

FD: How long have you worked with your current factory in China?

Jane:  We have several factories – depending on sweaters or cut/sew knits – some are new 2 years and several are 6 years – 2 are 15 years.

FD: How often do you travel to China directly to meet the people who make your clothing?

Jane:  Twice yearly.

FD: Can you tell us about your relationship with the folks who make your clothing?

Jane:  There is still wide-spread opinion that sourcing and manufacturing clothing in Asia-and more specifically in China is a desire for cheap labor and that the conditions under which people work is not good. The truth, though, is much more complicated and nuanced, or just plain not true!  Our Chinese manufacturers have become experts in working with organic and eco textiles and they produce some of the highest quality goods at competitive prices. All of our factories are reviewed for workers’ conditions and all must show proof of third party monitoring of social and environmental conditions. We have formed relationships with these factories from our years of visiting them in China and their owners and many of the ladies that work there are now our friends!

They have also listened to us over the years and instituted changes which have bettered the living and working conditions of their staff.

While the work ethic in China may not seem “perfect” to our standards, it is considered to be a skilled trade now to be a garment worker.  They bring home a middle-class income and many factories now have health care.  Many of the workers support their families and send their children to school based on the money they earn cutting/sewing and finishing our goods. The factories we work with are all family owned and smaller operations that employ workers from the surrounding areas. This means we are able to support families staying together. There are many sweatshops all over the world including specifically in New York and LA. It is important to us that we can personally monitor conditions and we have a partner that respects and listens to our requests for change.

Our workers are honest, hard-working, and family oriented and doing the best that they can to make a living. They depend on us for this. When we visit the factories, the ladies laugh and joke with us and teach us new words in mandarin. They are free to come and go to the bathrooms, they have tea and water available at all times and they are free to stop work and share a chat with their friends. The food they are served is the same as I eat when there (free lunch tokens are given out) and it is good and balanced and they have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. One of our factories has even built a small meditation garden where workers can walk during their breaks and get some fresh air and enjoy the greenery. Both our knit factories have adopted stray dogs from the local area and care for them like family pets.

These ladies make our clothes!

FD: Do your factories have any certifications (WRAP, GOTS, OEKO-TEX, etc.) and can you explain what that entails?

Jane:  Yes, one factory has WRAP the other has a European version of WRAP and the very small ones cannot afford the costs so I just make sure they are following the same standards.

All our factories are small – we paid for one factory to get WRAP certification but while many big businesses can list an impressive amount of certifications – the reality is this is out of reach for most small family owned operations.  Cost for WRAP was around $350 USD for a small factory of 23 employees.  So it is impossible to do this for all our little factories even though they use the same standards (or higher).  Bigger companies can afford to pay for WRAP and FLA (Fair Labour) is even higher $1200 USD which is to be paid as a yearly fee.

FD: Do the fabrics you work with have any certifications?

Jane:  Yes, bamboo is 100% certified organic, cotton is 100% certified organic, wool is produced using humane farming practices and non harmful chemicals to process it.

FD: Some of our clients are concerned with Chinese factories “faking” certifications or claiming certifications they don’t actually hold.  Is this a real concern? 

Jane:  Yes, I would say this is more related to large scale operations – they can afford to bribe the certifying body – I have heard about it but have never experienced it first hand.  I would say it is a real concern with anything that is produced on a large scale for low cost… organic is expensive – as are good working conditions.

FD: Can you tell us a little bit about what modern Chinese facilities are like?

Jane:  Here are some pictures – they are like any factory I walk into here in Canada or USA.  Some are much better kept actually.  Very  neat, all windows are open in summer and doors.  Well ventilated, lots of natural light and each worker has their own chair/light/table.

FD: What other information can you give us to assuage the negative connotation that is still often associated with garments that are Made in China?

Jane:  Another reason that we manufacture in Asia is because all of the eco textiles originate from Asia, and one of our goals is to have our production facilities as close as possible to where our fabric, hardware and fixtures originate, this has been proven to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.   Did you know that much of the cotton produced in the US is sent to either China or India for milling before coming back into the states?  So really, if you go to the root of the garment – it is possible almost every piece of clothing has come from China in some way.

I would add is that I find it frustrating that there is such a negative connotation with Chinese goods.  The US has spent the past few decades growing trade with China and helping to bring the work up to standard, pay etc.  This is primarily why all the cheap brands have moved to countries without any work conditions in place (Bangladesh, US Samoa, Cambodia, Areas of Africa) – I also think other big industry has not kept pace and there are still horror stories of people falling asleep making cell phones and getting little to no pay for extremely poor work conditions.  So unfortunately, I think this is the impression that is given in the media – these are the things that make the headlines – not the goods news.

FD: Is there anything you’d like to add or would you like to bring up any points we may have missed?

Jane:  Just to stress that we have worked a long time with our factories and they rely on us – that’s how they make a living.  So although we may do some production locally, we will continue to support them.   It is impossible to do the sweaters we make in US or Canada.  The machinery just does not exist anymore.

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Stock up on Green Tree Organic Panties Before Year End

Organic Cotton Panties
Green Tree Organic’s Trista Cami and Eat Organic Panty

Green Tree Organic Clothing has been in business for 2 years now and we’ve put out a total of 8 designs.  Our goal was to offer inexpensive organic cotton panties and intimates that are made in the USA.  If you followed along with us that first year, you’ll know the process was much more trying than I had ever imagined.  Fortunately, our process is now fairly stable and our small line is doing quite well.

 

Unfortunately, rising prices of everything from fabric to elastic to sewing has kept us from expanding into more colors, more designs and men’s items. We have been reluctant to raise prices because we really wanted to offer an economical, Made in the USA option. If you look at the PACT model, they started off sewing exclusively in the USA.  Prices continued to rise until most of their panties were in the high $20 to low $30 range.  Eventually, they gave up on manufacturing in the USA and started manufacturing in India.  It brought their costs way down and their panty prices are now all under $15. On the flip side, Blue Canoe has continued to manufacture in the USA and their price is now $34 for a single panty (though we sell Blue Canoe panties at a small discount everyday for $30 each).

Organic Cotton Boy Short
PACT’s Boy Short

 

So what’s a small business to do?  Here’s our plan.

•   We will continue to manufacture in the USA and keep as much of our processes local.

•   We will be raising prices in January both to reflect our higher cost and to offer wholesale so we can get USA-made panties in brick and mortar stores.

•   We will expand the line of PACT underwear that we carry to offer a less expensive organic cotton panty alternative for those who really want organic and just can’t afford the Made in USA prices.

 

Green Tree Organic panty prices will go up between $3 – $5 each starting in the new year.  This is early warning for you to stock up now.  There are a few sizes/colors currently sold out, but our seamstress is working on them and we should have everything back in stock before Christmas with at least a couple of weeks left at the old pricing.

What are your thoughts on this?  Manufacturing in the USA has certainly been in the news a lot lately.  Is price more important than local jobs?

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FaeriesDance.com to be the Exclusive Distributor for Love Nature Organic Bras and Panties

In February we announced that Love Nature was rethinking their line and might discontinue production.  Months later, with a lot of negotiation, I’m extremely excited to announce that FaeriesDance.com will be exclusively selling a limited selection of Love Nature favorites.

Our agreement spans 5 organic cotton bras and 4 panties.  We’ll be getting the largest quantity of the all-time favorite Alba line including:

Two pieces from the Princess Line:

One bra from the Fairy Tale Collection:

And a matching bra and panty set:

 

We specifically tried to focus on bras that had features unique to Love Nature.  That’s why 4 of the 5 are their signature organic cotton padded bras with polyester-free, cotton padding.  The Alba No Wire bra, our best-selling bra of all time, rounded out the fifth (shown left).

Love Nature is a subsidiary of the Italian lingerie brand Lormar.  While Lormar has decided not to move forward with Love Nature, they still have access to the production facilities.  The most difficult issue we faced was ensuring that Lormar could still source all of the incredible eco-fabrics that were used in the Love Nature line.  So their production team had to check each style for availability of the fabrics, the cotton paddings and the trims.  That, combined with the high quantities required to produce each style, forced us to stick with just a few designs.

For a small business like ours, the quantities are staggering.  We’re literally getting thousands of bras and hundreds of panties.  Even at our most ambitious growth predictions, we should have stock the next 3 years.  However, this agreement was a one-time only offer from Lormar.  So we don’t expect to be able to restock again once these are gone.

That said, there are a couple of minor negatives.

  • We expect a small price increase due to the high Euro to Dollar rate at the moment and the cost of warehousing all this stock for an extended period.
  • No more cute, embroidered linen drawstring bags.
  • The upfront cost of this endeavor is delaying phase 3 of our in-house manufacturing project.  This means we won’t be producing men’s underwear for a while longer.  Good news, though – we’ve found an excellent alternative for the guys (but that’s a post for another day).
  • Sadly, the other 60+ Love Nature organic lingerie items – including all of those lovely PJs and nighties – are still discontinued.  Don’t wait to get the one you’ve been coveting.

We hope you’ll appreciate our efforts.  The most common complaint we hear is when a favorite staple – be it bras, underwear or socks – becomes unavailable.  Of course, we also hope this will bolster our business for the next few years while we scour the planet for more eco-undies.

We expect these items to be available for sale in October, 2014.

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The Zen of Organic Panty Manufacturing

Last August, I announced that Faerie’s Dance would start manufacturing their own line of organic cotton panties.  By October, we’d put a down payment on our fabric and had our first patterns. At the time, I posted that we’d launch those first few designs in late January or February.

It’s April, and many of you (including myself) are wondering, where the heck are these panties?! Good question.  Let’s recap.

When we left the deposit on the fabric, the manufacturer (a small, family-run, GOTS certified manufacturer in India) told me it would be about 60 days to completion.  So I lined up our Stayton, Oregon based seamstress for end of December and our Portland based printer for early January.  And for about 2 or 3 weeks, we were on schedule.

Once we were ready to get our low-impact dyed colors done, I learned I needed the Pantone color numbers to proceed.  I’d already picked the colors to match the latex-free elastic trims.  Unfortunately, the elastic seller wasn’t able to tell me what the Pantone numbers were.   And it turns out, buying what I thought would be a swatch card is actually a reference encyclopedia running about $900.  After a bit of a confusion and scramble, I mailed pieces of elastic to India and they were able to match the colors that way. 

This small glitch put us 2 weeks behind.

Being a small business owner, I’m aware that things can occasionally (read: regularly) go wrong.  So when a machinery part broke down at the fabric manufacturer and they told us (very apologetically) that there would be another two week delay, there really wasn’t much I could do.  (Other than lament that the Hearts A’flutter panties wouldn’t be ready in time for Valentine’s Day.)

At this point, we were 4 weeks behind.

Now, we do a lot of importing.  Our best-selling bra line is from Italy.  When you ship small, lightweight items, they generally need to go by air because there’s not enough weight and/or volume to justify hiring all or part of a sea shipping container.  So I really (really!) should have known better.  But in my excitement of getting our first custom made fabric, I did not account for the time delay of shipping sea versus air.  Air usually takes a week, two tops.  Well for 1300 lbs of fabric, you really can’t ship by air.  (Unless you want to pay a ridiculous amount of money and waste a lot of jet fuel, neither of which are high on my priority list.)  So my allotted “shipping week” was taken over with special forms required for sea shipments.  Then the actual shipping time took an additional 4 weeks.

Suddenly, we were 2 months behind.

Ok, but February 27th is the big day – fabric is arriving!!  I figured a few days for customs clearance, and I would be able to get the fabric to the seamstress first week in March.  I make calls. I schedule.  The fabric arrives!  And I am the lucky winner of a special Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) exam.  If you just clicked that link, yes, the winner of a VACIS exam also wins the right to pay extra for the exam – even if the cargo is deemed legal and no contraband is found.  To make a way-too-long-story short, customs finally released my fabric on the afternoon of April 4th.  They held it more than 5 weeks. My business was required to pay nearly $400 in additional exam fees, and no contraband was found.

Et voilà, we were now 3 months behind.

So I call the seamstress, and guess what?  She’s in the middle of someone else’s project.  This was not at all unexpected, and I was really grateful that she (a small business owner herself) was still willing to work my project in.  I’m sure some of my delays had her scrambling to find other projects.  She worked in all of the sample sewing and fittings (which are now done! yay!); and is able to start full production April 28th.

And just like that, we are 4 months behind.



Jaime, our Patternmaker, verifies the measurements of the first samples


I’d love to offer you all a list of the lessons I’ve learned during this experience, but it’s a blog post, not a novel, and room is limited.  And for the sake of all the issues I still haven’t run into and the fact that I haven’t even called the printer back yet, let’s just call it 5 months behind and hope for a July launch.  Just in case.

That said, the single biggest, most overwhelming, really smack-in-head, light bulb on, ah-ha lesson that I’ve come away with is… humility. 

I am humbled by the efforts of the fabric maker, customs broker, seamstress and patternmaker in support of my project. 

I am grateful to the many customers who’ve asked about the panty status, and who’ve not only been understanding about the delays, but even outraged on my behalf over the extra customs costs.

I am overwhelmed by the vast effort that goes into bringing the simplest of items to market.

And most of all, I am embarrassed by all the times I’ve been frustrated with manufacturers over delays they’ve had.

I’m going to go a little easier on folks from now on, including myself.  How many of you are harder on yourselves than you need to be?

Combining this with the experience of getting judgmental e-mails, I’m going to make an extra effort to be a bit more empathetic all around.

And just like that, I found a little peace through adversity.

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QUICK FACT: Is hemp illegal to grow in the USA?

Hemp is not technically illegal to grow in the USA. It can be grown with a special permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Rumor has it however, that farmers are never actually given permits. So for all intents and purposes, it is illegal. Industrial hemp is in the same family as marijuana and was banned for its similar look. You can’t get high on hemp though, as the mind-altering drug THC found in marijuana is nearly absent in industrial hemp.
On August 5 of this year, Oregon passed a bill to make hemp farming legal in that state. They are the 17th state to pass some sort of pro-hemp legislation in the past 3 years. The states are also lobbying to have the DEA permit issue removed and allow state-control of hemp production. At the moment, all of our hemp fabric for clothing is imported and US farmers would like to change that.
A really interesting tidbit is that in 1619 at Jamestown Colony in Virginia it was mandatory for farmers to grow hemp because there was such a shortage. …You must grow it, you can’t grow, oh the confusion over one little plant…
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QUICK FACT: Where does organic cotton come from?

For years Turkey has held the record for growing the largest amount of certified organic cotton.  But according to the Organic Trade Association, last year India increased its production of organically grown cotton by 292% to become the number one grower.  India alone now produces nearly half the world’s supply of organic cotton.

The USA produces a mere 2.1% of the world’s supply of organic cotton and does not produce enough to meet the country’s demand.  So a lot of organic cotton is imported by necessity.  We hope the increasing demand for chemical-free, organically grown cotton will encourage more US farmers to go organic.

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Importing Part 1: Human Rights Issues

One of the questions we get a lot is where our products come from. Many people are adverse to purchasing items made from third world countries because they are concerned about working conditions, sweatshops, child labor and basic human rights.

Despite public outrage over the last few years, that concern may indeed still be valid at some big-box retailers. However, at FaeriesDance.com, I personally check on the credentials, certifications, auditing and labor standards of every new manufacturer we add to our line up. Not only do the farmers and factory workers who create the products we carry earn living wages in decent working conditions, but in many cases our manufacturers are directly responsible for improving the lives and conditions of the people.

Probably the very best example of this is the manufacturer Pants to Poverty. Their specific goal as a company is to employ the poorest people of the world in a completely sustainable business model in order to stamp out poverty and hunger. They currently employee over 6700 tribal farmers in India with long-term contracts, enabling those farmers to feed and care for families and raise their overall standard of living. Here is a great video with a little fun from Pants to Poverty on the passion of their commitment.

For a more poignant look at the farming conditions and how organic farming combined with fair trade practices have improved the lives of the impoverished, check out this video, also courtesy of Pants to Poverty.

All of our manufacturers have an honest commitment to being socially conscious as well as eco-friendly. Environmental sustainability is only viable if the efforts are also socially sustainable.

Of course, deciding whether to buy something that is made in an emerging nation versus in the USA is a more complex issue than just Human Rights. There are economic, political and even environmental issues (such as the environmental cost of transportation) that must also be considered. I plan to address some of these in future posts, though they are not always very straight-forward. But in this one area of Human Rights, I’m proud to say that our products are actually helping people world wide.

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